Guns, Cameras, and Consciousness

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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We know that railroads once changed people's perception of speed. Historians record that humans had to learn to look at the landscape, instead of trying to focus on the foreground. Atlantic co-founder, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once wrote, "What new thoughts are suggested by seeing a face of country quiet familiar in the rapid movement of the railroad car." In that very big way, new technological experience forced people to recalibrate their minds. But it's happening in smaller ways, and with smaller objects, all the time.

I read Harper's August 2010 cover story, "Happiness Is a Worn Gun," with this in mind. Author Dan Baum, a long-time gun enthusiast, begins carrying a concealed weapon. The story comes to be about how carrying that very special gadget, the gun, changes your consciousness of where you are.

First, he introduces into the quiet useful hierarchy of consciousness used in concealed weapon training courses.

Condition White is total oblivion to one's surroundings -- sleeping, being drunk or stoned, losing oneself in conversation while walking on city streets, texting while listening to an iPod. Condition Yellow is being aware of, and taking an interest in, one's surroundings--essentially, the mental state we are encouraged to achieve when we are driving: keeping our eyes moving, checking the mirrors, being careful not to let the radio drown out the sounds around us.

When he's packing heat, "there's no way to lapse into Condition White." Instead, "the revolver's weight and pressure keep me constantly aware of how quickly and utterly my world could change."

The way Baum sees it, there's nothing quite wrong with the vigilance his dangerous gun induces, but he does conclude that a society full of people with guns would be a different society indeed. "Condition White may make us sheep, but it's also where art happens. It's where we daydream, reminisce, and hear music in our heads," he writes. "Hardcore gun carriers want no part of that, and the zeal for getting everybody to carry a gun may be as much an anti-Condition White movement as anything else."

Perhaps the gun makes this experience seem exotic, but I don't think it is. Consider my recent experience with a new camera, the Canon G11. If a concealed weapon induces Condition Yellow, a great, lightweight digital camera turns on your Condition White switch. It slows me down, keeps me looking at things in hopes of finding something spectacular to capture. I  pay a lot more attention to the good light out there, too.

So, for all the sharpness Baum says the concealed weapon gives you, I'll take the G11. 

Image: auraelius/flickr

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/07/guns-cameras-and-consciousness/59970/